Into the Unknown
By Carrie Bohnsack
On April 23, 2022 — just two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine — Northrop Grumman engineer Leyla and her husband, Ashim, arrived in Pzemysl, Poland, located 10 short miles from the Ukrainian border. The couple had traveled 5,387 miles from their home in Syracuse, Utah, to help Ukrainian refugees.
“I couldn’t just watch it unfold on TV. I felt compelled to do something,” said Leyla, a systems and software engineer on the Sentinel program.
For Leyla, seeing the images of refugees fleeing their homes felt all too familiar. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 11-year-old Leyla left her native Azerbaijan for the United States. Her experience as a refugee, along with the fact that she speaks English, Turkish and Russian as well as understands Ukrainian, is part of why she felt both driven and qualified to help.
Arriving in Poland with no time for jet lag, the couple began their journey.
At the Border
In Pzemysl, Leyla and Ashim spent most of their time at a humanitarian aid center, helping women, children and the elderly make plans to meet loved ones or seek refuge in another country.
“It was my first time doing something like this,” Leyla said. “Being able to step out of my comfort zone and do something felt empowering.”
The couple worked tirelessly from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. for 12 days. Leyla worked as an interpreter, collaborating with humanitarian groups helping refugees get to their destinations, while Ashim planned logistics for incoming asylum seekers, many of whom had injuries from their journey and were carrying beloved pets.
“I felt a special connection to the Ukrainian kids forced to leave their pets behind,” said Leyla, who remembers how heartbreaking it was to leave her cat, Tom, behind when she was a refugee.
Leyla said the best part of her time in Poland was meeting volunteers from all over the world.
“Everyone was there of their own free will; it felt like we were working in harmony,” said Leyla. “We didn’t know each other the day before, but now we forever know each other from this moment in history.”
While working at the humanitarian center, the couple met a woman named Anastasiia and her two daughters, 14-year-old Liana and 11-year-old Viktoria. The family had fled their village when a nearby city, Krasne, was bombed.
Leyla felt a strong connection to the family, especially Viktoria, who was the same age as Leyla was when she left her home country. Like Leyla, Viktoria also had to leave behind her cat.
With Leyla’s help, the Ukrainian family sought refuge in Ireland before coming to America, sponsored by Leyla and her husband through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program.
Leyla felt it was important to share what she had learned from her experience as a refugee with the family.
“Moving to a new country and not knowing if you are ever coming back can be very painful. If there aren’t enough people around to help you make that transition, it can be even more challenging,” said Leyla.
Back at Home
In November 2022, Leyla and Ashim welcomed the family into their home, where they lived for a few months before relocating to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Today, Anastasiia has obtained a work permit and is taking English lessons while helping other Ukrainians flee the war.
Leyla said witnessing the large humanitarian effort in-person was life-changing and that the support of her community, including her Northrop Grumman team, made all the difference.
To this day, Leyla continues to offer a helping hand to others, no matter how tough the situation.
“I always try to be a positive influence in others’ lives. Looking back, even though it was challenging, I would do it again,” said Leyla.